250 miles on the road to recovery
Officer Ashley Wilson’s partner was fatally shot in the line of duty. Her journey to heal took her on a three-day bike ride to honor his memory
Last year, Officer Ashley Wilson sent us a photo capturing the end of her journey to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in honor of her fallen colleague, Officer Antwan Toney.
In recognition of National Police Week and Mental Health Awareness Month, this is the story of her long road to recovery in the face of unimaginable trauma.
Officer Ashley Wilson was exhausted.
It was day three of a 250-mile bike ride from Portsmouth, Virginia, to Washington, D.C. She’d been through two police academies and numerous triathlons, but never experienced something as physically and spiritually demanding as the Police Unity Tour. Having already pushed through obstacles like a 113-mile first day and the steep hills of Virginia, her body was reaching its limit. Her mind was, too. There was a feeling of finality to it all – a crushing heartbreak that made every new physical challenge even more monumental.
The weather had been favorable for most of the trek, but now, on this final day, rain pelted Wilson and the other 145 riders headed toward the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. Officer Antwan Toney’s name, newly etched in the marble that memorializes over 21,000 fallen LEOs, was waiting for her there. Kinetic energy did little to combat the cold. But Wilson kept going – she had to. She was leaving it all on the road: the pent-up anger and despair that had crippled her since Toney was shot and killed in the line of duty. She had made a promise to her partner in the final moments of his life; she was going to keep it.
‘EVERYBODY’S BEST FRIEND’
Wilson’s journey last May during National Police Week, the annual tribute to fallen officers held in the nation’s capital, was the culmination of seven months of training and turmoil. On October 20, 2018 – three days after his 30th birthday – Toney was fatally struck by gunfire while investigating a report of a suspicious vehicle. For the Gwinnett County Police Department (GCPD), which serves a population of nearly 1 million people in the second-most populous county in Georgia, it was the first line-of-duty death since 1993 and first from felonious assault since 1964.
“Toney's death really turned everybody upside down. We had never done this before,” Wilson said.
There is a bond inherent in law enforcement, given the high-stakes nature of the work. But for the 10 cops who made up Wilson’s squad, it went even deeper than watching each other’s six in the South Precinct of Gwinnett County. It was familial. They did everything together. They’d help each other move. They celebrated Christmas as a group. They held cookouts on the first Sunday of every month. If one of their kids had a t-ball game, the entire team would fill the bleachers. Wilson considered herself the “mama bear” – organizing events like baby showers and ensuring the group stayed tight-knit.
“Our squad had something that nobody else in this department had – people would tell us that,” Wilson said. “It was just this crazy bond.”
She was particularly close to Toney, who underwent GCPD academy training at the same time she did. They were both transplants – their kinship as much a product of the lack of family in the area as it was their shared status as GCPD rookies. Wilson had moved from Virginia to Gwinnett County with her husband, who had taken a job at the CDC in nearby Atlanta. Toney, who was single, had moved from California.
Wilson and Toney shared a passion for service – particularly community policing.
“I love getting out and talking to people, getting them resources they need, or they didn't even know existed. So did Toney,” Wilson said.
During their nearly three years as partners, Wilson was inspired by the work her partner did connecting with the county’s diverse population, whether it was an impromptu basketball game with some neighborhood kids or handing out stickers at the county fair. His “big ol’” smile was infectious – he had the sort of warmth that disarmed people.
“He never missed an opportunity to mentor,” Wilson said. “It's hard not to be close to Toney. He was everybody's best friend.”
According to Wilson, even suspects liked him.
“The perp would be like, ‘I'm not talking to you.' Toney would go over there and somehow they would start a conversation – probably about Toney’s mama's cornbread – and then all of a sudden, the suspect would give a confession,” Wilson said. “I was always like, 'How do you do that?'”
A former police explorer, Toney had long dreamed of becoming a cop and, like Wilson, took pride in the work.
“This is a passion, not just a job. You have to love getting up every morning because you see some of the worst things you'll ever see in your life in this profession,” Wilson said. “I can't remember a down day for Toney, like ever. He was so thankful – he loved being a cop.”
‘THIS DOESN’T HAPPEN HERE’
Toney told Wilson he felt like he was choking. He took a deep breath and didn’t take another. Wilson administered CPR, then transitioned to an AED. The suspects had fled. As Wilson worked on Toney, her colleagues were setting up a perimeter – still in bloody uniforms – for a manhunt that would last for days. Wilson was still working on Toney as they got into the ambulance. When they arrived at the trauma unit, Wilson felt Toney’s hand. It was cold.
“I thought, 'This is bad. But maybe his body is just shunting blood from his extremities to his core,’” Wilson said.
The doctors hung blood and pushed drugs. They were feverishly working on Toney. Wilson saw it as an encouraging sign.
“I was like 'All right! They wouldn't be doing this if he was dead,” Wilson said. “Then the doctor stepped back. Everybody stopped. And he was gone.”
Wilson held Toney’s hand in the trauma room. She remembers looking at his thin blue line bracelet.
“I thought, 'What the fuck just happened, bud?' This doesn't happen here; this happens in other places. It surely doesn't happen to somebody I know.”
As a member of the honor guard, Wilson escorted Toney to the medical examiner’s office. She folded the flag that was placed on his body. She slept at the funeral home.
“Toney was never alone. Ever. That was a promise I made,” Wilson said. “I held his hand in the hospital and I said, 'We're going to take care of you and your family. We will not forget you.’”
‘I FELT LIKE I FAILED HIM’
In the immediate days following Toney’s death, Wilson was numb. Between the chaos of the ongoing manhunt and planning Toney’s funeral, there was enough distraction to keep most of her feelings pushed down. But the night of the funeral, the guilt began to consume her.
“I was never a drinker. And that night, I got so drunk I threw up on myself,” Wilson said. “I was looking for every wrong coping mechanism.”
She began isolating herself. She questioned her abilities. She couldn’t imagine anyone at her agency wanting her as a partner.
“In a lot of ways, I felt like I failed him,” Wilson said. “The medical examiner said if he got shot in the way he did in the trauma room they still wouldn't have saved him. My head hears it, but my heart doesn't feel it. It sounds silly…I know I couldn't have saved him, but I feel like I should have been able to.”
When Wilson returned to work, she poured herself into it. As the only woman on the team, she didn’t want to be perceived as a “weak or emotional female.” She put immense pressure on herself to be OK. Losing her badge would mean losing her identity. But as the weeks went on, the work became harder. The grief was unrelenting.
“It was hard driving around the zone and seeing places that reminded me of Toney, like ‘That’s where we ate lunch” or ‘That’s where we chased that guy through the hotel,’” Wilson said.
The day Wilson finally sought help, she nearly took her own life.
“I remember setting out my dress uniform and thinking that I was all alone in this pain, grief and shame and that killing myself was the only way out of it,” Wilson said. “I picked up the phone and called a supervisor who recognized I was not in a good place and helped me get help. That was the heaviest phone I ever had to pick up.”
‘WE WILL NOT FORGET YOU’
As Wilson underwent counseling, she also sought additional therapy through physical activity. A friend suggested the Unity Tour, a group of law enforcement officers who make the trek to the national memorial every year during Police Week to raise awareness for cops who have died in the line of duty.
“I'm an endurance athlete, so I needed to get back out on the road where I could look at pretty things and not think about blood and bullets,” Wilson said.
Even for an athlete, the process for joining the bike tour was daunting. She needed to pass 50- and 75-mile qualifiers, maintain a cycling speed of 15 miles per hour, and raise $2,000 in sponsorship money. She’d wake up at 3 a.m. during the winter for four-hour practice sessions spent on the road or – when the weather was particularly brutal – staring at a wall on a stationary bike in her basement. The biggest challenge was spiritual: the sheer will that was required to overcome her grief and train on days where all she wanted to do was melt into the floor.
Wilson credits the ride for regaining her sense of purpose; honoring Toney helped her push through the challenges. Every rider had a story about a fallen officer, and on the way to D.C., as they passed fire stations and elementary schools and police departments with crowds of people cheering for them, they traded those stories with each other.
“The ride totally really kicked my ass,” Wilson said. “But I got to talk about Toney. I got to tell people about my best friend. When I held Toney's hand and said, 'We will not forget you,' this was me making good on that promise.”
When she finally arrived at the memorial, lined with survivors, wreaths, cards and flags, even the cold, wet weather couldn’t dampen the energy.
“I wouldn't have traded that for anything – that moment, that feeling,” Wilson said.
When Wilson saw Toney’s name on the wall, she broke down. Then she started talking to him.
“A lot of things that I had kept inside I was able to say out loud for the first time. It took a lot of weight off my shoulders,” Wilson said.
‘I WILL ALWAYS MISS TONEY’
A year after the trek to D.C., Wilson continues to navigate her loss. Some of her colleagues have left policing entirely. Those who remain have transferred to other units, but they all keep in touch as systems of support for each other. Wilson credits EMDR therapy for helping eliminate flashbacks and nightmares, but even with those issues behind her, the process of recovery is long. There is no timeline for trauma.
“Grief is hard. Some days are better than others,” Wilson said.
She still sees a counselor, who is helping her balance work and home life.
“I will always miss Toney, but now the shooting doesn't touch every part of my life,” Wilson said.
For other officers impacted by trauma, Wilson stresses that treatment and breaking through the stigma is the only avenue for true healing.
“I think it's important that people realize we are not supposed to see the things that we see,” Wilson said. “And there's no shame in accessing mental health care. When I finally said I was hurting, the people I thought I was going to disappoint were the first ones to ask me how they could help. Don't be afraid to reach out.”